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When Does Overeating Become Binge Eating?

An Occasional Indiscretion Can Become a Recurring Problem


Updated February 15, 2014

Binge. The word is often used to describe a bout of heavy drinking. In recent years, however, it has come to mean something new. Binge eating is now a well-known aspect of the eating disorder known as bulimia nervosa, where food is eaten in large quantities and then regurgitated.

But binge eating can also occur on its own, without bulimia being present. These bouts of overeating can significantly and negatively impact health and well-being. It can be a serious problem with serious ramifications, such as morbid obesity and increased risk of developing certain weight-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

So how do you know if overeating is just an occasional "blip" of overindulgence or a serious issue? Some experts refer to an occasional binge as "benign binge eating" or "everyday overeating," and consider it to be normal. But if binge eating itself has a significant unfavorable impact on your life, it's cause for concern.

Binge eating differs from "normal" overeating in two main ways:

  • A larger amount of food is consumed at one time.
  • The binge eater feels a sense of loss of control.

There are no set parameters for how much food is too much to be considered "normal" overeating. A binge eater must assess: Am I eating an amount of food larger than what most people would eat under the same circumstances and in the same amount of time?

Those who have a binge eating problem often say they feel a loss of control over what and how much they eat during an "episode" of overeating. Some binge eaters say they feel driven to eat, as if it were a compulsion that cannot be ignored.

The feelings binge eaters experience during and after overeating range from intense pleasure to disgust. That's another key difference between overeating and binge eating -- the sense of disgust does not make a binge eater stop eating, while an overeater listens to that voice. The binge eater feels she simply cannot stop.

Other characteristics of binge eating include eating more rapidly than usual and not chewing food completely. Some binge eaters consider food more important than other aspects of their lives and may hide food to eat in odd places, or even steal food from others.

In general, binge eaters tend to eat more often than those who experience the occasional bout of overeating. Note, however, that continually snacking throughout the day (grazing) is not considered indicative of binge eating.

If you feel that your eating habits have been described here, there is good news. Cognitive behavior therapy has proven very effective in helping binge eaters. Ask your doctor for advice, or look for professional help in your community. By finding a qualified counselor -- such as a licensed clinical social worker or psychologist -- you will take a huge step toward gaining control of a seemingly uncontrollable problem.

Emotional eating is often an issue for binge eaters, which can also be treated with therapy, stress management techniques, and improved self-care skills, such as journaling and planning relaxing activities as alternatives to eating.

To find a qualified counselor in your area, visit The CMHS Mental Health Services Locator.


Fairburn, Christoper G., Zafra Cooper. "Binge Eating: Definition and Classification." Binge Eating: Assessment, Nature and Treatment. Guilford Press, 1993. 3-6.

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